Editor’s note, January 20, 2021: President Joe Biden’s first act on his first day in office was to sign an executive order requiring the wearing of masks on all federal properties, as well as federal employees and contractors.
“The first order I’ll sign here relates to Covid,” said Biden. “It, like I’ve been saying all along, where I have authority, requires wearing masks and social distancing on federal properties.”
The following original story was published on November 9, 2020.
When President-elect Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination on Aug. 20, he said part of his Covid-19 plan was a “national mandate to wear a mask”. Five months later, on January 20th, he’ll have the chance to implement one.
“It’s time to end the politicization of fundamental, responsible public health steps like mask-wearing and social distancing,” Biden said Monday. “The most effective thing we can do to stop the spread of Covid: wear a mask.”
He followed up with a tweet encouraging the use of masks:
I won’t be president until January 20th, but my message to everyone today is: wear a mask.
– Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) November 9, 2020
However, it will not be easy to implement a mask mandate for the whole country, especially if 16 states do not yet have national mandates. (The AARP listed 33 states with mask mandates as of the end of October. Utah, which issued its mandate on Monday, has 34. Washington, DC and Puerto Rico also have mandates.)
With limited federal powers, Biden must convince everyone from state and local governments to individual Americans that masks are one of the best and easiest ways to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Where the president can – and not – order the Americans to disguise themselves
As in many other countries, there are different approaches to thinking about whether the president has the authority to give a national mask mandate. Some attempts to do this at the state and local levels have met with lawsuits and denials as masks have become an increasingly politicized and controversial issue. Biden has announced that he will issue an executive order requiring masks to be worn on federal properties.
In addition, Biden’s version of a national mask mandate, as set out on his new transition website, does not appear to be his. Instead, he will “work with governors and mayors” to encourage them to give their own mandates and to remind Americans to wear masks. While the majority of American governors have given statewide mandates, 16 states have not – including Mississippi, which revoked its mask mandate in October (Governor Tate Reeves demands masks in certain countries).
While it’s hard to see that Republican-led states and places work hand in hand with a Democratic president these days – even in the face of a virus that infects people regardless of political leanings – many permanent Republican state governments have issued masked mandates As soon as their constituents got sick and died, most recently on Monday in Utah. Others still seem proud of their tenacity, like South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. Even in this state, however, local governments are trying to issue their own orders.
The majority of Americans are in favor of masks and mandates
While the outgoing government did not wear masks even indoors with large numbers of people where social distancing was impossible, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris were visible advocates of masks and social distancing throughout the campaign. As President-elect, Biden has already announced an advisory board of science and public health experts. Despite the divided land he will inherit, setting the recommended security measures can encourage Americans to follow his example.
Helping him out here is the fact that even among Americans who oppose Republicans there is a majority support for wearing masks and mask mandates – and that support stems from the recent and worst wave of coronavirus cases the nation is now against fights.
There is also data showing that there are fewer cases of Covid-19 in areas with high mask usage, and the number of new infections decreases as mask usage increases. A recent study estimated that using a universal mask in America could save 130,000 lives.
“Small acts add up to huge successes,” said Biden on Monday. “So let’s wear a mask. Let’s go to work. “
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